American Gold Mine
By Paolo Bacigalupi
“IN DETROIT AND SEATTLE, rioters clash with police for the sixth straight day. Los Angeles and Oakland declare States of Emergency. Martial law continues in Atlanta. Miami refugees now number in tens of thousands as Hurricane Ariana sweeps inland. And this just in, Denver revokes concealed carry after rioters enter its Convention Center. Good morning, everyone, I’m Heidi Hallenbach, and this is Straight Shot.”
I smile brightly to the camera as I delineate the mayhem of a nation. Outside our studio: maelstroms of violence. Inside: red-white-and-blue civilization. And me, of course, joining you in your living room, letting you know that we’re in this together. We good people, appalled at the madness of mobs.
Jia signals we’re clear. I relax as her cameras pull back and we cut to commercial. Jesse and Antoin rush in to check my makeup as Acid-Reducing Tummy Tea takes a thirty-second ad slot, soon to be followed by Pringles New and Improved Satay Ranch Flavor, followed by some luxury SUV that filters your family’s air to 1.0 microns.
When Jesse and Antoin are done, I get up and go to the studio windows. Down on the streets far below, the protestors are already at it, marching back and forth in front of the Maydon Media Tower. Sonia Agarwal, my producer, comes to stand beside me.
“Oh look, they’re up early.”
“Nothing like a little tear gas in the morning.”
Sonia doesn’t like the protestors, but I feel a deep connection with them. They want attention, too. Just like my advertisers. Everyone wants attention. See them march back and forth. See them block traffic. See them wave their signs with so much energy.
“Look at me, look at me!” they howl. “I matter!”
Yes, of course you do. I wouldn’t have these ratings if you didn’t.
“You’ve got another minute-thirty,” Sonia prods.
I know how long I have. I’ve been doing this for fifteen years. But Sonia didn’t get where she is by being anything less than a control freak. I can tell she’s checking my makeup even now, not obviously but still mother-henning.
She waves to Jesse and Antoin again. “Shine. On her cheeks.”
Antoin powders me one more time, his expression sharing the joke between us, both of us knowing this is more ritual than need. Jesse rearranges my long blond hair. Tucks my jacket back a little, showing my blouse off to better advantage.
“Let me see.” Sonia turns me to her, messes with my hair again. Smooths my jacket. “Okay. Good. Now you’re perfect.”
Down on the streets, the protestors continue to chant and march. They sound agitated. And Sonia’s right, they’re in early today. “Did the crowds look bigger to you today?” I ask. “When you came in?”
“I came in through the tunnel,” Sonia says, focused now on my eyeliner and mascara. “I didn’t see shit. Hold still.” She plucks a lash free.
Donovan, our Head of Network, put the tunnel in a few years ago, when staff started getting harassed every day. Now we rotate. A few people go in through the reinforced front doors so the protestors still think we’re using the entrances, but mostly we’re coming in from down below, following a private tunnel from three blocks away, weaving beneath the streets and threading the subway lines of Manhattan to eventually emerge in the bowels of the Maydon Media Tower, then climbing up the stairwells like rats out of the sewer, before finally boarding our express elevators and rocketing into the sky, to this aerie studio in the clouds where we rule the airwaves and hurl images like thunderbolts onto American screens every day.
I call out to Jamal Mercier, my current intern. “Hey, Jamal! You come in the front today?”
Jamal hurries over, his face still buried in his tablet. Nice-looking black kid with a permanently harried expression, mostly because I harry him. We got him from Northwestern. A master’s in Journalism and he ends up as my unpaid intern. “You see the crowds?” I ask. “They bigger today?”
He peers down. “Bigger and crazier. It took all of Tower Security to get me through. They’re nuts.”
Below us, the crowds slosh and surge: protestors, counter-protestors. Down the block, police lines are beginning to form up, getting ready to push them all back. From this high up, they remind me of ants, whole hills of ants kicked over. When I was a girl in the drought heat of Arizona, I used to stir ant piles together to make them fight one another. I was always awed by how easy it was. Just mix them up and they went at it. Two hills that had coexisted peacefully side by side were suddenly thrilled to tear into one another.
Recipe for war:
1) One little girl.
2) One short stick.
3) Two anthills.
4) Mix thoroughly.
It’s as predicable as the chemical interactions of yeast, water, and flour. A ridiculously simple recipe, and yet suddenly, something is bubbling up. Rising.
Jia calls out from the studio. “Thirty seconds, Heidi!”
To the rest of the show’s staff, the only thing interesting about the crowds down there is how they affect our ratings. But I can’t resist savoring the moments when all the ants come out of their tunnels to wave their little antennae in rage.
“Ms. Hallenbach?” Jamal is looking concerned. “You okay?”
“It really does feel different, doesn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t know.” He nods toward the studio. “Jia’s getting antsy. You should head back.”
I let him guide me toward the cameras, but something about the day really does feel different. More alive. More electric.
“You ready?” Jia asks from the cameras as I settle in behind my desk.
“Oh yeah.” I can’t help smiling. “Feels like a big news day.”
*** Denver Attacks Concealed Carry After Armed Protestors Enter Detention Center *** Haribo’s Gummi-Licious Cryptocurrency, Backed by Guizhou Agricultural Bank, Rises 1000% in First Day of Trading *** Rep. JoAnn Singleton Introduces Bill to Provide All Police Forces with Next-Gen Smart Rifles. “Our Men and Women in Blue Deserve the Best.” ***
Back on the air. Lights, cameras, backdrop of red, white, and blue, along with the black cross hairs of the Straight Shot logo.
Straight Shot, with Heidi Hallenbach.
I smile into the camera and begin calmly assuring our viewers that all is not well.
They may be watching television from La-Z-Boy recliners in Iowa. They may be watching from their stock monitors on Wall Street. They may be standing on subway platforms streaming onto their phones. They may be listening in their cars as they fight through sprawl and gridlock.
Wherever they are, they pay attention to me. Even now, they’re passing my gorgeous face in JFK and DFW and ORD concourses, and no, I’m not bragging when I say I’m gorgeous. Back in the old days, swamp mounds like Limbaugh could survive on radio, and dough monkeys like Hannity over on Fox could find a niche. But double standards still abound; I would never have gotten this far without dark, seductive eyes and lustrous bleached-blond hair, cheekbones softened by makeup, lips made full and red, and of course, that kiss of cleavage no one talks about but everyone looks for. I’m the whole package, designed and polished to trigger chemical cascades of mammalian desire that keep my viewers hungering, staring, loving, hating.…
You know that game, Marry, Fuck, or Kill?
Well, I’m all three, for everyone.
“In Atlanta, National Guard and police clash again with looters. What was advertised as a peaceful” — I draw out the word — ”protest march, has now become more than a month” — another emphasis — ”of skirmishes between law enforcement and roving gangs.”
Cut to the mayor of the city saying that people need to return to their homes. He’s got a wide-eyed affect that makes him look more than a little crazy, and he has a thing for Panama hats that doesn’t do him any favors.
“A small number of people are provoking confrontations. People continue to have the right to assemble, but lawful assembly and hooliganism are not compatible!” And then, the part we actually wanted to get. “This situation is being completely overblown by the news media!”
We cut to footage from last night with people running from tear gas, and rerun his comments: “This situation is being completely overblown by the news media!”
Quick supercut of the month of riots: tear gas, clubs, blood on the streets, people running, windows smashed, cars on fire, troops marching. Was it one city block that was rioting? The entire city? Who can say? Do I care?
The important thing is that my viewers are seeing images of people who don’t look like them, running riot. Seeing a mayor who doesn’t dress like them, looking crazy. Of course, this will further enflame my hate-watchers as well, who will all howl that their side is being misrepresented. Bonus views.
I smirk out at my viewers. “If this is the overblown situation, imagine what it will be like when things get serious.”
Cut to the Ford Vanquisher, an SUV that drives over pretty much anything. It’s not quite an armored car, but after watching the world burn, my viewers are in the mood for a product that feels like it can plow through their enemies. It’s a peace-of-mind product, says Danny Langan, our Head of Programming.
We do a lot of business with peace-of-mind products, for some reason.
I check my phone for the thirty-second spot price of our ads. The Vanquisher is paying extra. Viewership is way up for the morning.
Seeing the rising numbers, I can’t help but feel vaguely annoyed. I’m ridiculously underpaid for what I bring to the network. When we negotiated my last contract, none of us had any idea I’d be so good at this.
Let that be a lesson to you: Never sell yourself short.
*** Teacher Pregnant with Child of Thirteen-Year-Old Student Says, “We’re soul mates.” *** Government Gives Millions to Liberal Berkeley Professor for Study of Monkeys Watching Television *** Hurricane Candi First Responders Obstructed by Armed Gangs ***
“Hi, everyone, I’m Heidi Hallenbach and you’re watching Straight Shot. Let’s see what came in the mail today.”
This is one of my favorite sections of the show. I sometimes read death threats on air; sometimes I read love notes. Lately it’s mostly the threats, just to show my loyal audience how I face the mob with stoic bravery. The big secret is that I don’t interact with any of it. That’s Jamal’s job, digging deep into the howling maw of outrage and coming back with prize gobbets of hatred. We only run the most vitriolic, the most incoherent, the most abusive, the most enraged — but even so, today Jamal has outdone himself.
“This is interesting. Can you put this up on the monitors for everyone?” I make sure to keep smiling — pretty vulnerable me — while the graphic fills the wall behind me. “Well.” I draw out the pause. “Isn’t this nice?”
My face, Photoshopped onto the body of a murdered woman. Ten feet tall, thirty feet wide, all across the backdrop of the studio, a nude dead woman lying on an open street. Her nipples and crotch are blurred, because Danny was worried the FCC would come after us — and after all, we care about family values — but this is too good not to share. I want people to see this dead woman in all her glory.
I especially want them to see her guts strewn all over the street — and the dogs feeding on her.
I make a mental note to thank Jamal. Maybe I’ll get him a six-pack of his favorite Brooklyn pico-brew IPA. I’d give him money, but it’s best not to make interns think too hard about how exploited they are.
I leave my proxy-murdered body up in the background as I pull in a panel of opinionators, carefully chosen to represent a variety of values and identities. Today the topic will be the loss of civil dialog — because we’re all about civil dialog here at Straight Shot.
Fiona Salazar, of course, takes the bait and claims that I’m the reason our national conversation is so debased now.
“If you weren’t doing what you do, we’d still be able to talk to each other!”
I look back at the image behind me. “Because I report from my honest perspective, we can’t be civil?”
“That’s not what you do, and you know it.”
“I’m just amazed that people who say they care about social issues always stoop to this,” Jack Erlan says.
“Oh, come on. We both know she’s provoking it!”
“So I deserve this?” I ask.
Fiona stutters on that. “N-no, of course not.”
Of course, my viewers don’t believe her. Hell, she doesn’t believe it herself. She’s absolutely sure I deserve it.
I leave the image up, letting my loyal viewers take in my martyrdom. Giving them a chance to wallow in their rage, their disgust, their lust, their righteous anger, their sense of being abused, disrespected, but above all victimized.
Alice Nguyen uses this as an opportunity to point out how women are always attacked and why don’t the so-called activists down on the street denounce this if they care so much about women.
Jack Erlan nods, square-jawed. “This country didn’t used to tolerate this sort of animal behavior.”
I’d like to keep it going, but attention spans are short. Anyway, we’ve done our job. The Internet is blowing up with the image and our social media sweatshops will run with it from here. They’ll keep pushing the idea that the people who hate me are animals — animals who like to see women torn apart by dogs. They’ll find the punchiest headlines, the most adrenaline-provoking nouns, the most dopamine-releasing verbs and let our loyal viewers do the rest, sharing from phone to phone, from app to app, all of them amping themselves up on the oh-so-satisfying rage memes we seed.
There are animals everywhere. Animals next door. Animals all around.
I smile into the camera. My murdered body lies behind me.
“Up next, we’re going live to the Freedom Militia March on Washington. Stay tuned.”
Cut to Sensotone, the Toothpaste for Sensitive Teeth.
*** Immigrant Throws Meal at Waitress After Being Served Food That “Appropriates Her Country” *** Hurricane Gianna Slams Georgia *** Female Cop Stabbed in Throat at Burger King ***
“You and Jamal were right about the mobs,” Sonia says at our midmorning story meeting. “NYPD is sending in crowd control, big time. They think something’s going to blow up. They’re going to try and disperse everyone before it happens.”
“We have cameras?”
“Already embedded with the cops. Plus we’ve got five undercover crews doing micro-cams of the crazies. Looks like chaos down there already and they haven’t even started clearing people out yet.”
“Where are we with the Freedom Militia March?”
“Lots of counter-protestors. Plus, we’ve got Representative Langston, out of Connecticut, on record saying open carry in the capitol is tantamount to rebellion. Says he’s been elected to take every gun and melt it, and he’s going to make it happen.”
“What race is he?”
Sonia makes a disappointed face. “White.”
“Oh, well. We should still get him on the show. He’s a loon.”
She hesitates, something else clearly on her mind. Danny Langan, our Head of Programming, is at the meeting as well, and Sonia looks to him.
“What?” I ask. “Spit it out.”
“You’re not going to like it,” Danny says. He motions my bodyguard over.
Rojo Ortiz. Big guy, Glock in a shoulder holster, mace up his sleeve, and flashbangs hanging like Christmas ornaments under his jacket.
I got Rojo after packages containing white powders started arriving at the office, and after a man who called himself Brother Enoch tried to force his way into my apartment with a nylon rope and a hunting knife. Rojo’s got two muscle-bound compatriots — Nolan Tam and Aji Brezhnev — who rotate in and out, twenty-four-hour protection. For my public events, I get all three.
Rojo looks serious. “Tower Security is saying the crowds have tried to break into the building.”
I can’t help laughing. “Like that will ever happen. The new doors down there should be on a bank vault.”
Danny looks uncomfortable. “Still, we should probably move you to the secure studio.”
“In Jersey? No way. We’re staying here.” I turn to Sonia. “You know what? We’re leading with this after the break. Crowds outside our studio, trying to break in. We’ll do some kind of free-speech angle. That’ll piss them off.”
“Ms. Hallenbach — ” Rojo tries again but I override him.
“Rojo, I’ve had Quakers try to assassinate me. You think I’m afraid of these marching morons?”
“Still, an abundance of caution — ”
“An abundance of caution? I love you, Rojo, but let me lay this out for you. That crowd down there is ratings gold. Sonia? Get these pussies off me. Christ.”
But to my disgust, Sonia looks like she wants to follow Rojo and Danny into the Jersey bunker. “Jesus Christ, all three of you?” I turn to Jamal. “Jamal, are you afraid of those morons down there?”
Jamal shrugs. “Not really.”
“And there you have it. My fucking intern has more spine than you all. And he’s unpaid! We’re number one in every metric and every market! You know what our thirty-second ad spot is worth right now? Double.” I stand up. “Come on! Get it together, everyone! We lead with the morons after the break. Jamal, get me another double espresso.”
After Sonia leaves, I go to peer down at the protestors, all of them all riled up, marching back and forth, swirling around and around. Jamal returns with my espresso. I down it without tasting it. I only want the energy, anyway.
That’s right, you little fuckers. Just keep running around. Keep getting yourselves all stirred up. The more pissed off you are, the more money I make.
The ants are pissed.
*** Sensotone — Life Is Fast, Don’t Let Tooth Pain Slow You Down! ***
“There’s money in rage, Heidi.” My old boss, Gavin O’Grady. My mentor. “There’s money in hurt. People want stories to explain why they’re so very fucked. They want to hear that they’re special, that they matter, that it’s someone else’s fault.…”
Him, drunk in his office, chuffed on himself after another ratings spike.
“You see those pastors standing up in front of their flocks, stoking grievances, Heidi? You think they do that by accident? Stoking rage? Telling their flocks that they’re all put-upon, besieged? Everyone wants to be a victim, Heidi.”
He always pontificated. Even more so after the brass came down on him for harassing the interns. All that thwarted energy. He couldn’t get a blow job, so he fellated himself.
“You know what the difference is between a black church and a white nationalist rally? Fucking nothing, Heidi. Just a bunch of people telling themselves that they’re fucked because someone else is fucking them.”
He loved people with grievances. Atheists and evangelicals, feminists and dudebros. Islamic radicals and radical liberal arts professors. Mormons, I-Bankers, teachers, coal miners, cattle ranchers, meat activists, Christian compound dwellers.… He didn’t care about values, he cared about identities, and the rage they kept bottled within.
“There’s no difference between any of them. They all hurt. They all bleed. And they all love to hear that they’re the victims. They want to know that they’re the ones with the real wounds.
“We all want to be a victim, because it gives us permission. Permission! Deep down, everyone wants permission to do whatever the fuck we want! And that’s why my viewers love me, and that’s why they’re going to love you. Because you let them know that all their rage is justified. You’ll salve their wounds with the sweet balm of permission. Permission to rage against the people who have done them wrong, who’ve gotten some special advantage over them.… I look at all these different people — all of them sure that they’re the special ones, the ones who deserve respect, the ones who matter — and you know what I see?”
He turned to look at me, that dissipated troll of a man. That last of survivor of an old guard of dinosaur broadcasters.
“Do you know what I see?”
Of course I did. We both saw the same thing. Both of us looking into one another’s souls.
Me me me me me me me me.…
Everyone wants to believe they matter. And if you tell them they do, they’ll worship you forever.
I made fifty million off my base salary alone last year.
I’m not bragging. I’m just telling you.
Maydon Media makes even more. Maydon breaks even on me in the first six weeks of my annual run. Which pisses me off, because I’m so much better at this than my old dinosaur of a boss ever was.
I can drive a wedge into any demographic and take a piece of grievance for myself. Make someone love me. Make someone hate me. Make everyone watch me. Race, class, gender, sexual preference, religion, politics, region, job, accent, immigration status, marital status, income, education, diet, allergies, hell, tell me whether you like dogs or cats — I’ll find a way to help you understand how someone else who’s different from you is fucking you over.
I make my money digging in the gold mine of the American culture war, and I’m a genius at it. Two years ago, the Quakers starting sending me death threats. Last year, they tried to bomb my limo. That’s how good I am.
I even make Quakers homicidal.
And don’t act like I’m the sick one here. I wouldn’t have rioters out on the streets below my studio if some liberal sweetheart across town wasn’t whipping up her own viewers, telling the moron brigade that they’re the real victims here.
“Everybody loves to be a victim, Heidi.”
The funny thing is that although my boss understood mobs, he didn’t see his own mob coming for him. In the end, I gutted him like a fish, and my viewers loved me for it. I called him out for his abuses of women and no one came to his defense. His limitation was that while he understood hate, he didn’t understand love. When I shoved him off the air and took his place, literally no one cared because all he ever did was give people things to hate.
Me, on the other hand? For every person who riots outside my studio, there’s another person lighting candles and worshipping me. I’m Mother Mary, offering warm absolution, and I’m raging Kali, raining down fires and destruction — I’m also still getting ten million dollars less than my limp-dick mentor earned at his peak, even though I have twice his viewership.
I’m so fucking underpaid.
*** Woman Arrested for Throwing Feces in Wedding Cake Shop *** Mormon Protest March Attacked by “Tolerance Commandos” *** Tucson, Arizona, Held for Ransom by Narco Warlord ***
A building across the street has just gone up in flames. Now, fires lick the windows and smoke pours out. Some book publisher, I think. I don’t know why they didn’t invest in better crowd defenses. It wasn’t like you couldn’t see this shit coming for years.
Of course, NYFD can’t get through because of the riots, so now the mayor’s in a panic. But the coward keeps backing off from declaring a State of Emergency. I’m pretty sure he’s hoping the crowds will take our tower next.
Too bad, asshole, we have better defenses.
I smile into the camera. “Up next, Law and Order in New York City — is the Democrat mayor deliberately letting rioters run rampant? We’re going live to a view of the blaze at 1492, Avenue of the Americas, right across from our own studios.…”
We all watch together as flames lick through the shattered windows where people have thrown their office furniture, trying to get out. My chatterati perform a nice Greek chorus while we watch the mayhem.
Glen Jacobs: “Where is the leadership? That’s what I want to know.”
Fiona Salazar: “The Federal government doesn’t have the resources to respond to every emergency — ”
“This is a local matter, not a federal — ”
“This is what tax cuts have done — ”
Lena Pai: “You think that mob out there is caused by tax cuts?”
“Its clearly up to the states — ”
“They don’t have the training!”
“So we just watch as these animals burn down the country?”
We run more live footage of the burning tower across the street, the message abundantly clear: We’re all on our own. The government is just standing by, letting the world go up in flames.
We cut to the Freedom Militia, down in DC, marching on the capital. “Rise Up for Freedom!”
Lots of American Flags. Lots of dudes carrying guns. Lots of images of the President, hanged in effigy, then gunshots ring out and the crowds scatter.
Our ratings spike, of course.
*** Cerberus Systems Home Defense: Sleep with Peace of Mind. ***
“Freedom Militia members in the ‘Rise Up for Freedom’ March have been attacked on the steps of the nation’s capital. Gunfire appears to have broken out between the peaceful marchers and counter-protestors. Meanwhile, rioters continue to provoke clashes with police in seven cities in what could possibly be coordinated attacks.”
I give my audience the serious smile that conveys reassurance and authority, even as more images of conflict feed in from around the country. Flames and smoke, wild-eyed, disheveled people, chaos. The message is clear: There’s garbage in the streets, running rotten like a sewer line break.
“Also, an update from right outside our studios: I’m very sorry to say that the chaos seems to be spreading. There are now two towers in flames on the 1400 block of Avenue of Americas.”
We’ve been pushing that address hard for the last couple segments, stirring the ants. As we cut to commercial, I can actually hear the mobs down on the streets, smashing up against cops and tear gas and clubs and rubber bullets.
They’d rip me limb from limb if they could get past the reinforced doors Donovan installed. I can’t help wishing I had a balcony to wave from, to let them all know I’m doing just fine and how much I appreciate them.
Sonia comes over and offers me a cup of coffee. We go and sip and watch the mob get its mob on. The buildings across the street continue to torch. Someone is trying to hang a banner from a smoking window. Something about me being a Nazi, either that or they support Nazis. I can’t fucking tell.
“Give them points for determination. Too bad they can’t spell.”
“It’s better on the streets,” Sonia says.
She opens her phone, shows me images from the front lines. Screaming women with dreads. Brown-skinned men wearing bandanas over their faces. Lots of piercings. Lots of pseudo-tribal tattoos. It’s like the old Mad Max movies. I point at one: a nose-pierced black woman screaming, wide-eyed, full of rage. “Let’s use her.”
“You like that club she’s swinging?”
“Fucking love it.”
Jamal comes running over. “We have the latest injury reports!”
“There’s already more than twenty cops headed for the hospital. They were trying to help the fire department get through.”
“Any civilian injuries?” Sonia asks.
Jamal looks confused. “We care about protestor numbers?”
I smack Sonia in the arm and give her a dirty look. “No. Sonia’s just fucking with you. You did good. This is what we want. Keep me up with the cop numbers.”
“We’re getting reports the rioters lit a paddy wagon on fire, too.”
“Their own people were in it.”
“I love it!” Sonia and I exclaim in unison. “We have video?” Sonia asks.
“Working on it.”
Jia is signaling from the studio. “You’re on,” Sonia says.
Unfortunately, Jamal can’t get me the burning paddy wagon, so we tap-dance through my next bit. I do get a live update from him that two more cops have been injured. One is dead, so we play that hard.
“A police officer has died after clashes with rioters on Avenue of the Americas.”
We’ve got family photos. Joel Hernandez. Nice man. Nice family. The kids are fucking gorgeous. Joel Hernandez. HERO. We’ll call him Hero Joel Hernandez from now on. God damn, let’s take one last look at those children, shall we?
Also, I don’t want you to miss the turn. They’re not protestors now. They’re rioters. A cop is dead. There are rioters on Avenue of the Americas. Looters in Los Angeles. Mobs in Denver. Thugs in Boston. A shooting war in DC. All around us, the dogs are running wild.
My viewers are sending in comments, fast and furious. Whipping one another up, all of them feeding on the righteous anger that I’ve stirred. Our online ad revenues are way up, too. People just can’t stop watching. Can’t stop stoking their own rage at the insanity of it all. We close out the afternoon segment. Jia shuts down the cameras. My colleagues in the next time slot will pick up the theme and push it hard. Rioters today. Rioters tomorrow. If we could, we’d put rioters on the weather report. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, It’s Raining Mobs All Day.
Is that a song?
I can see Sonia signaling to me. She’s getting our LiveCount numbers. One finger, then three fingers. Number one in every market. Online, we’ve tripled total views.
Of course, as soon as we start to celebrate, Danny comes into the studio to rain on the parade. “We’re getting calls from the mayor’s office to tamp things down.”
“I’ll bet we are.”
“He’s practically begging.”
I look down at the evolving warfare in the streets. “Who cares? He’s not going to survive the election.”
“Even Donovan’s calling down. He thinks maybe we’ve gone far enough. He’s worried we might lose some advertisers.”
“Yeah, well, my bonus comes from viewer numbers, and our viewers are glued to us. Anyway, there’s always some advertiser who wants an audience. Cerberus fucking loves us. They’re selling home-defense systems like hotcakes.”
Danny grimaces. “Your bonus isn’t the only thing that matters, Heidi. There are limits. Decency, responsibility — ”
“Sonia, tell him.”
Sonia smiles sweetly back at Danny. “Triple, honey. We’re at triple.”
Danny’s eyes go wide. He stops complaining.
Another profitable day down in the gold mines of American rage.
Why would any sane person stop digging?
*** Volunteer Freedom Militia Launches Counter-Offensives Against Rioters in Three Cities *** Woman Dies of Flesh-Eating Virus in Nipple *** Mayor Santiago Steps Down, Unable to Curb Violence. Freedom Militia Takes Lincoln Tunnel ***
We’ve been under siege for two days, unable to the leave the offices by the main entrance. Outside, all is chaos, but inside, we’re safe and calm, narrating the disintegration of a nation.
It’s all accelerating. In truth, it’s been accelerating for years, probably ever since the fairness doctrine went out the window and advertising shoved its piggy snout into the news hour. We’ve been dumping gasoline on the fire for fifty years, all for the sake of viewership and ad sales. Don’t call it a twenty-four-hour news cycle, call it a fourteen-hundred-minute news cycle, call it an eighty-six-thousand-four-hundred-second news cycle. Call it maximizing audience engagement.
Call it money.
Images keep coming: people atop makeshift office furniture barriers, strange banners flapping in the smoke, black bandanas hiding faces. A cop beaten by a mob, blood running in the gutter. It never stops, now. We keep amping our viewers, and the ad cash keeps gushing in.
We run a clip of Anya Jolee from down in the streets. A gorgeous young woman who led some of the first protests against Maydon Media, way back when. Pretty girl saying nasty things. “They should be drowned in dog shit. They spew hate and they spew shit and they should be drowned in it! That would be justice. I’d like to see Heidi Hallenbach drowned in dog shit.”
Of course, we beep out the word “shit,” because our viewers can lip-read just fine, and we keep telling our viewers that we’re the ones who care about decency.
We freeze on Anya’s snarling face as she says it again:
“Heidi Hallenbach should be drowned in dog shit.”
All these people care about is violence.
Anya Jolee hates me.
But more importantly, she hates you.
*** NEW! Tom Yum Flavor Corn-Scoops. A Taste of Thailand in Every Scoop! ***
Sonia comes running into the studio just as our commercial break is ending. “We’re getting calls from security! They broke through the doors! They’re in the building! Everyone, listen up! We need to go! Use the north stairs, not the elevators. Tower Security has cleared a path for us. We’re going out the tunnel.”
I should be afraid, but I’m not. I don’t even blink. And I definitely don’t leave my desk. I’ve been preparing for this moment all my life.
Around me, the rest of the show’s staff is starting to flee. Jia is behind the camera, but she’s looking unsteady.
“Put me back on,” I tell her.
The building feels like it’s shaking. How many people have broken in? Apparently, it’s too many for Jia. For a second, it looks like she’ll do what I say, but then she bolts. I almost despair, but suddenly Jamal is there, walking straight to Jia’s spot and taking over the camera. He signals the countdown to the end of the corn-chip ad. Smiles at me. Gives me the thumbs-up.
“I’m getting reports that rioters are now trying to reach our studios. We’re unsure how long we’ll be able to keep broadcasting. We’re currently trying to evacuate our staff, but we don’t know if we’re going to succeed. I’ll do my best to stay on as long as I can and keep you informed.”
I’m beautiful and brave, and all alone.
I’m Joan of Fucking Arc, here.
“Heidi!” Sonia is frantic. “They’re going to cut off the tunnel! We have to get out now!”
And yet I stay on air, speaking calmly into the camera as all the others run. As people stampede from the studio. There is no rule of law. There is no civilization. There is only mob rule. I am an island of calm. “If there’s anyone who can help us, this would be a good time. I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to broad — ”
I make sure that Jamal cuts the camera mid-sentence.
It’s more dramatic that way.
And then I get the hell out, too. Because no, I’m not going down with my ship.
*** Armed Mobs Break Into Maydon Media. 1492 Avenue of Americas. Send Help *** Armed Mobs Break Into Maydon Media. 1492 Avenue of Americas. Send Help *** Armed Mobs Break Into Maydon Media. 1492 Avenue of Americas. Send Help. ***
Orderly evacuation. We’re all heading down the stairs because the elevators have been deactivated. Smoke is billowing up from below. The crowds cram to a stop.
“What’s going on?”
“I think someone’s blocked us,” Rojo says.
And then it comes, word shouted up from below that there’s no way down. The mobs are already in our escape stairwell. And then the screams. Suddenly the crowd surges back up at us, pushing, shoving, gathering momentum as the people down below become desperate, trying to escape, building pressure, boiling up.
“They came in through the tunnel! They’re in the tunnel!”
More screams. A lot more screams.
Well, ain’t that a bitch?
Disorderly evacuation. We all stampede upward, up past our abandoned studios, up and up and up.
“You should have listened to me,” Rojo pants as we keep climbing.
“It’s a little late to be complaining.” I pull out my phone and start swiping through my apps. Rojo glances over. “Are you fucking stock trading?”
“Currency trading, actually.”
“You are one sick bitch.”
I finish with my phone. “Yeah, well, this sick bitch also just ordered us a helicopter, so you can thank me later.”
But when we burst out on the roof, there’s no sign of my deus ex machina. Clear, hot, blue-sky summer day. Buildings all around us on fire. Black columns of smoke spike the skyline, all up and down the island. But no escape.
It’s astonishing to see it all live, without a screen between me and the happenings. It feels more alive. More real. More true. Not an abstraction of studio lights and partisan barbs traded back and forth. Something real instead.
I take a deep breath, filling my lungs with the shimmering rage of the city. I can’t help thinking that this would all make amazing visuals.…
I glance over at my colleagues, all panicked and disheveled from our climb, can’t help breaking into a grin. Jamal has a fucking camera. He must have grabbed one of the handheld units on the way out.
“Jamal, you are a fucking genius. Do we have mobile links?”
“Set it before we left.”
“I think I’m in love.”
Sonia glares from me to him. “You can’t be serious.”
“Why not? It is our job.”
“I’m ready if you are,” Jamal says.
A minute later, we’re up and running. We also get streams in from Jia and Danny and Shelly on their phones. Jia looks pissed that Jamal’s behind the actual camera, but screw her. After sticking with me in the studio — and now this — he gets the promotion. Now, with our phones and Jamal’s one camera and the studio linked remotely, we’re back and live, still hurling thunderbolts across America.
I smile bravely into Jamal’s camera, let Sonia dishevel my hair a little, but not too much. Never let them see you sweat. Never let them see your bravery waver. Never let your enemies see you weaken. A good martyr can get mussed but must never sweat. The more beautifully I die, the more love beats in the hearts of my viewers’ chests.
And I need my viewers to love me very much, if they’re going to save us.
“This is Heidi Hallenbach broadcasting live from the top of Maydon Media Tower, where we’re currently under siege.…”
The words spill out, easy. We’re an undaunted beacon of freedom, a plucky band of defiance against a tsunami of chaos.
Jamal films over the side of the building, capturing the streets flooded with people. The whole city is crawling with them. But now there are other sounds as well. The drumbeat of militias on the march. The sound of my viewers, coming to save me. Red, white, and blue flags of the Freedom Militia flying wild as they crash through Broadway in yellow Humvees. The crack of gunfire echoes up.
I can’t help smiling.
It’s not enough to hate something. You need to love something, too. And these people fucking love me.
Down below, the ants are well and truly enraged. Gunfire and screams and battle lines. Hard to believe that a city can tear itself apart so effectively, but they all have permission now. The sense of grievance has been well stoked.
It’s a symphony of destruction, a ballet of chaos, and we’re here, directing it all. The march of the militias coming to our aid. The mobs atop their barriers. The fighting in our own stairwells as we hold our defenses. The police running like rats abandoning the sinking ship. More towers go up in flames. Boom boom boom.
Sonia is narrating what’s happening in the stairwells. “Rioters have broken into the building. The situation is completely out of control — ”
She suddenly cuts off, which is sort of a surprise. My impression was that the mob was further down the stairs. That it wasn’t so —
My mentor’s one problem with mobs was this:
“They don’t know their place, Heidi. The little fuckers just don’t know their place. So you have to watch how hard you stoke them. If you push them too far, you can’t yank them back. One minute you’re leading them, the next you’re following after, begging for their attention, and after that, well, you’ve got no control at all.…”
Or, in my case, one minute, you’re generating triple ratings and bonus cash, and the next minute, a mob of counter-resentment is smashing its way up the stairs and onto your roof, and your own righteous mob is still too far away to help.
A childish part of me wants to scream at these people that they need to know their fucking place, and their fucking timing. There’s a very specific choreography to all of this, and these morons are fucking the moment — well, fucking my moment, anyway.
The mob crashes through the door and pours onto the roof. Danny doesn’t stand a chance. He disappears under the raging wave. They’ve got Sonia with them, but she doesn’t look conscious. More like a torn rag doll. They catch sight of me on the far side of the roof and a howl goes up.
But you know what pisses me off the most? It’s a bunch of fucking Quakers in the lead. I recognize one we interviewed a couple years ago, just before they started arming themselves. Apparently, he took it all personally, because he’s pointing a gun at me.
So I pull out my Glock and shoot him in the face.
What? You didn’t think I’d just stand here, did you?
Unfortunately, more people are right behind the Quaker, and they all seem to have it out for me. The next one I put down is some woman with a tire iron.
Some people say it’s hard to kill a person. But it’s not. Center mass and bang. Louder than at the practice range, but otherwise, it’s just like practice. And I’ve practiced plenty.
When the death threats started, I started thinking about the endgame. Not the stupid bug-out bag, hike into the wilderness, blah blah blah of apocalypse and zombie preppers, but the real endgame. I’ve spent hundreds of hours shooting targets shaped just like these people coming for me now.
Another one down.
Regulation shooting stance. Bang. Bang. Two more down.
I can hear myself screaming for the mob to get the fuck back, but more of them keep hurtling toward me. They just don’t fucking quit. Rojo steps up beside me, his own gun cracking away. We split our fields of fire, dropping more bodies. Nose rings and tattoos and dreads all fall in heaps. White and brown and black bodies.
You think I give a shit if you’re a woman? Dead. You think I care if you’ve got hipster beard? Dead. You think I’m afraid of your headscarf? Dead. You think I’m going to even hesitate? You think I care that you look fifteen and wear glasses? Dead. That you look like someone’s grandmother? Dead.
But as I fire, I become aware of my old mentor. The old toad gloating beside me, a ghost, risen. “What did you expect?” he keeps asking. “What did you expect?” He’s just glad that a mob has come for me the way my own mob came for him, way back when.
I put a bullet in him, too. And shoot dry.
Rojo’s own pistol is empty. I retreat, trying to reload as Rojo steps up. He’s reaching into his jacket for his flashbangs, but almost immediately he’s swallowed under a wave of howling rage. They don’t care about him except he’s blocking their path to me. I don’t have time to reload. They swarm over me. I go down.
Live by the mob, die by the mob.
Boots and shoes and heels kick me in the face, the ribs, the guts. Hands grab at me, yank my limbs, drag. Hands tear my hair. Fists in my face. I flash back to the image of the woman ripped apart by dogs. It’s me. I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. I’d thought I was ahead of the dogs, but I was wrong. And now I’m dying under their attacks, and more than anything, I’m pissed that these animals will be my end.
What did you expect? my old mentor gloats.
For years, I trained my viewers to hate people like these ones, and now these ones hate me so much, they’ll tear me to shreds. I helped them feel like victims, so now they can do anything. I gave them the gift of permission. And now I’ll die for it, because these people feel righteous in their bloodshed. They can do anything, and call it justice.
I’m screaming, begging, crying, but I can’t stop them, I’m dying —
An explosion shakes the roof. I feel the force of it. Another explosion follows. Suddenly my attackers stop attacking. They’ve stopped moving entirely.
Stunned, I crawl out from under the mass of bodies. There are moans. A few people flopping around. My ears are ringing. Bodies lie everywhere, inert. A woman tries to reach for me. I stamp on her face. Almost no one from the mob is moving anymore.
I look around, trying to get my bearings. My ears, I can’t.… Rojo is dead. Danny is dead. Sonia is dead. Jia is dead. The mob did its work.
Across the street, the whole block is on fire. Fires appear to be spreading throughout the city, but here, on this rooftop, all is silence. I turn, expecting to find more people boiling up from the stairwell. Instead, I find…“Jamal?”
He’s still alive and in his hand he has…A grenade?
My ears are still ringing. My head hurts. “Where the fuck did you get a grenade?”
His words are tinny and distant, but I can read his lips. “Rojo’s flashbangs. They fell out when the mob got him.”
He tosses the last one down the stairwell and crouches, covering his ears. A roar of smoke pours out. Jesus, they’re powerful. If I hadn’t been so far under the pile of the mob.… Hardly anyone is moving on the roof. They’re either knocked unconscious or dead.
Jamal is still looking at me. With a start, I realize he has Rojo’s pistol as well. From the way he’s holding it, it looks like he’s reloaded it.
There’s something in his expression that puts me on guard…something dangerous. A flicker of myself, the flicker of how I felt when I decided my own mentor needed to go. Jamal’s grip tightens on the pistol.
“You are a terrible, terrible person, Heidi.”
“I mean, yeah, sure, that’s true. But on the other hand, I did make a hell of a lot of money.”
“So what? It’s not like you can spend it. You made money, literally tearing everything down.” He points out at the burning city. “You can’t live here anymore! No one can!”
“Why do you care? You’re from Chicago.”
“You think Chicago’s any different right now? Give me one reason why I shouldn’t put you down like a dog for what you’ve done.”
I consider. “Well, for one, if you kill me, I can’t take you with me when I leave.”
“Leave?” He stares at me, dumbfounded. “Are you high? No one’s leaving.”
“You think I’m lying?” I point behind him. “Look.”
Keeping one eye on me, he turns. In the distance, a helicopter is beating across the city sky, winding between the pillars of smoke, coming our way.
“A little late on the arrival, but yeah, it’s mine.”
“You…you planned this?”
“Well, planned is a bit strong. But I did anticipate, anyway.” I test a modest shrug. “Endgames and all.”
“You’re unbelievable.” He shakes his head, torn between disgust and amazement. There’s still that spark in his eye. The same spark I had all those years ago. I love that spark. I fear that spark. The ambition. The calculation. We’re the same. He’s black. I’m white. He’s a man. I’m a woman. He’s from Chicago. I’m from rural Arizona. We come from different places and different lives, but here, we’re the same. We’re kindred souls.
It fills me with fear.
I can see his different values warring within him. See him weighing me, our relationship, this world.… He quirks a crooked smile.
“So…you want to do one last broadcast?”
“I would love to.”
Jamal pockets his gun and picks up the camera. Counts me down one final time.
I tell everyone they’re watching Straight Shot, but this time, it’s with Heidi Hallenbach and Jamal Mercier, and while I might be smiling at the camera, really, I’m smiling at Jamal as I narrate what has transpired on this rooftop, the assault on everything our viewers care about. The horrors of the mob. The terrors inflicted by these people who feed on division and identity and hate and judgment. I even point out that we used nonlethal means to stop them. Well, Jamal did, anyway.
After the broadcast, we go to the edge of the building to watch the spreading riots in the streets. It’s everywhere now. Unstoppable.
I reach out and hold Jamal’s hand as we stare down into that deep abyss, mesmerized by the warfare below.
I know you’re expecting me to shove Jamal over the edge, to betray him the way I’ve betrayed everyone else. But that’s an ugly thing to do to your soul mate.
Remember how I said we need love? I meant it. It’s true. Without love and trust across the deep chasms of our differences, we’re stuck down there, in the mob, churning and killing and hating and raging against one another.
I won’t throw Jamal over the edge any more than he’ll throw me.
Because we’re better than you.
Overhead, the helicopter is circling, coming to settle on the roof. It’s late for its cue, just like the rioters were early. If I’d choreographed it right, this would be the moment for the morons to come boiling through the door. But they jumped their cue, poor fuckers. They didn’t understand their proper place or proper role.
But then, neither did our advertisers — the car companies and the soft-drink makers, the diet pill pushers and the toothpaste sellers, the furniture retailers, the adult diaper manufacturers, the collectible coin companies, the gold investment shills, the energy drink cheerleaders.… None of them thought about the endgame they were building toward.
Mobs are profitable, but unpredictable. That was the lesson my mentor taught me. He didn’t have an endgame plan for when his own mob came for him, even though he should have seen it coming from a mile away.
And none of these mobs and factions burning up the nation has a plan, either.
My mentor didn’t have a plan.
My bosses didn’t have a plan.
Our advertisers didn’t have a plan.
My colleagues didn’t have a plan.
We tailor-designed mobs and inflamed their divisions. We set our mobs against others, demographic slices of advertising dollars wedged apart by profitable market segment. And across this city and across this nation, my competitors created their own mobs, their own lovers and haters, exhorting them, riling them, telling them how they’d been downtrodden and abused, just like I told mine.
We all used the same script to stir our ants, so why would anyone be surprised when the ants fight?
Who in their right minds wouldn’t have a plan for that?
The helicopter settles and its rotors slow. The door pops open. I tug Jamal’s hand. “Come on. Let’s get out of this shithole country.”
“But…” He looks confused. “You’re not going to stay here and lead? Your people would follow you.”
“You think there’s going to be a winner here? Look at what everyone’s doing to each other.”
At his disbelieving expression, I can’t help but pull him close and kiss him. “Oh, sweetheart, I’ve got so much to teach you.” I guide him to the chopper. “No, we’re not staying. We’re getting out. And our first stop is going to be somewhere luxurious. A nice vacation island, I think.”
“What about money? Will anyone even accept dollars anymore?”
“Oh. That.” I pull him up to join me in the helicopter. “Don’t worry. I dumped this currency. I’m in Chinese Yuan, and Haribo Gummis, and Swiss Francs, and New Zealand Dollars. I made the trades while we were on the stairs. Right before I ordered this helicopter.”
“So you did plan for everything.”
“Not everything.” I kiss him again. “I didn’t plan on you.”
I signal the pilot that we’re ready. The rotors spin up. I snuggle close to Jamal as the chopper lifts off.
He’ll make a good husband, I think. The kind of man who stands by his woman, even as she tears the world apart. We’ll live on a quiet green island on the far side of the planet, and our children will grow up strong and safe in a country that has no tolerance for schisms and mobs, and has no truck with the profits of stoked grievances.
And someday, maybe, our children will return to this shithole to pick through the rubble, and the descendants of these schism lovers will all gawp in wonder as our airships come to hover above them. They’ll kneel in waves, worshipful, as we walk amongst the few survivors of their long internecine wars that were never necessary but were so deeply desired. They will gape at what civilization truly looks like.
Or maybe this place will never recover. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me. Our chopper turns toward the setting sun. Outside the windows, the flames are gorgeous in the gathering darkness. A whole city on fire. A whole nation, burning.
I’ll tell our children that I was the best at what I did. For fifteen years, I was Mary, offering absolution to my followers, and I was Kali, bringing flames.
I made fifty million a year.
I’m still pissed that I was underpaid.